Alfred Radcliffe-Brown

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Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (January 17, 1881 – October 24, 1955) was a British social anthropologist who developed the theory of "structural-functionalism," and is often regarded, together with Bronislaw Malinowski, as the father of modern social anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown was particularly instrumental in bringing together the various theoretical approaches to anthropology from France and Britain to the United States. Radcliffe-Brown regarded all social structures as contributing to the functioning of society as a whole. He compared a diversity of cultures from different parts of the world. Although he did not do extensive fieldwork himself, beyond his initial work in the Andaman Islands, he established and developed programs of anthropological research at universities in South Africa and Australia which produced large amounts of data. His analyses revealed similar social structures in cultures that were geographically isolated, leading him to theorize that human society naturally develops certain types of social structures to fulfill essential functions, similar to the organs of the body. Although Radcliffe-Brown's theories per se were rejected by later anthropologists, his work influenced many researchers and has led to advances in the understanding of human societies worldwide.


Radcliffe-Brown was born on January 17, 1881 in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, England as Alfred Reginald Brown, but later, by deed poll, changed his name to Radcliffe-Brown. As a child he developed tuberculosis, which left his lungs seriously impaired and which ultimately contributed to his death.

After finishing King Edward’s High School in Birmingham, in 1901 Radcliffe-Brown enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge University to study psychology, economics, and the natural sciences. However, he soon became interested in the work of W. H. R. Rivers, Alfred North Whitehead, and later Alfred Cort Haddon. Under the influence of Rivers, he changed his major to anthropology. Another influence at Cambridge that left a mark on Radcliffe-Brown’s later career and work was anarchist communist Peter Kropotkin. It was Kropotkin who expanded the Social Darwinist concept of the survival of the fittest and introduced the idea of cooperation as important for human survival.

Radcliffe-Brown undertook his first field study in the Andaman Islands, in 1906. In that work he built on the work previously done by E. H. Man and M. V. Portman, displaying the usual emphasis on ethnology and history. He spent two years in the Andaman Islands, and returned to London in 1908.

It was then that Radcliffe-Brown became aware of the work of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s work made him reconstruct his own ideas and totally reinterpret his work on the Andaman Islands. Radcliffe-Brown conducted another field study, between 1910 and 1912, in Western Australia, in which he used his new theory of "structural-functionalism." Both studies served as the inspiration for his later books The Andaman Islanders (1922) and The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1930).

During Word War I, Radcliffe-Brown served as Director of Education in the Kingdom of Tonga, and in 1920 moved to Cape Town, South Africa, to become professor of social anthropology. At the University of Cape Town he founded the School of African Life and Language, and developed a research program in social anthropology.

In 1925 he moved to Sydney, Australia, where he became professor at the University of Sydney (1925-1931). There he developed a program similar to that in the University of Cape Town, with even greater success. He founded the journal Oceania, and organized extensive field research in the area. His work The Social Organization of Australian Tribes, which was published in 1930, still serves as the sourcebook for the studies of the region.

In 1931 Radcliffe-Brown came to the University of Chicago as a visiting professor of anthropology. The next several years, spent writing and teaching, were among the most productive in Radcliffe-Brown’s career. It was during this period that he expanded his theory of social anthropology, and developed his conceptions of primitive law. The peak of his career at Chicago was his public debate in 1937 with Mortimer Adler, entitled “The Nature of a Theoretical Natural Science of Society.”

In 1937 Radcliffe-Brown returned to England to serve as professor of social anthropology at Oxford. The Second World War, however, prevented him from conducting any major research projects, and he spent the next few years serving as president of the Royal Anthropological Institute. He also lectured at universities in Yenching, China, São Paulo, Brazil, and Alexandria, Egypt.

After his retirement in 1946, Radcliffe-Brown spent several years in the University of Cairo and Grahamstown in South Africa, editing African Systems of Kinship and Marriage (1950) and publishing his Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952).

The last years of his life Radcliffe-Brown spent fighting a series of episodes of bronchitis and pneumonia. He died in London in 1955.


Radcliffe-Brown developed the field of "structural functionalism," a framework that describes basic concepts relating to the social structure of primitive cultures. He was greatly influenced by the work of Émile Durkheim, who studied global social phenomena. Radcliffe-Brown saw the aim of his fieldwork as the study primitive societies and the determination of generalizations about their social structures. He believed that social institutions should be studied like scientific objects. He regarded institutions as the key to maintaining the global social order of a society, analogous to the organs of a body. His studies of social functions examined how customs aid in maintaining the overall stability of a society:

Such a view implies that a social system has a certain kind of unity, which we may speak of as a functional unity. We may define it as a condition in which all parts of the system work together with a sufficient degree of harmony or internal consistency, i.e., without producing persistent conflicts which can neither be resolved nor regulated. (On the Concept of Function in Social Science, 181)

Radcliffe-Brown rejected conventional historical diffusion and cultural evolutionary approaches to anthropology. Generally, he was rather critical of evolutionary speculation about the development of cultures and societies:

We do not observe a “culture,” since that word denotes, not any concrete reality, but an abstraction. But direct observation does reveal to us that…human beings are connected by a complex network of social relations. I use the term “social structure” to denote this network of actually existing relations. (On Social Structure, 190)

Radcliffe-Brown believed that the goal of anthropology was to carefully compare different societies and formulate general social laws based on the conclusions of fieldwork. His desire was to understand how societies work, and to identify the significant constituent parts, and the ways that these parts function together. Rather than studying different cultural traits and their diffusion between cultures, Radcliffe-Brown aimed at studying general laws of the cultures. He opposed the historical particularism of Franz Boas and his followers, who claimed that to understand a culture one needed to understand the history of that culture. Radcliffe-Brown saw that approach as too speculative. Instead, he favored cross-cultural comparisons. He was interested, for example, in how very similar social structures could develop in cultures that were geographically separated and distinct.

Thus, the job of an anthropologist, claimed Radcliffe-Brown, is to describe the anatomy of social structure, and to understand how different parts function together and in relation to the whole:

I conceive of social anthropology as the theoretical natural science of human society, that is, the investigation of social phenomena by methods essentially similar to those used in the physical and biological sciences. ... There are some ethnologists or anthropologists who hold that it is not possible, or at least not profitable, to apply to social phenomena the theoretical methods of natural science. For these persons social anthropology, as I have defined it, is something that does not and never will exist. For them, of course, my remarks will have no meaning, or at least not the meaning I intend. (On Social Structure, 189)

Radcliffe-Brown used a whole series of examples to support his claims. In his famous essay On Joking Relationships, published in 1940, he described a custom in some cultures, where people engage in a formalized type of banter, exchanging jokes among themselves. To understand the custom, claimed Radcliffe-Brown, one has to understand the function of complex social structures and the role their relationships play in the custom. He was able to explain the custom and thus prove his point.

Radcliffe-Brown also contributed extensively to the anthropological study of kinship. His work on aboriginal societies of West Australia revealed a complicated kinship system that was practically unknown before, and helped reveal the structure of aboriginal society in general. Moreover, in his 1924 paper, The Mother's Brother in South Africa, Radcliffe-Brown focused on South African family ties. He studied one particular, rather peculiar custom, observed in some tribes, of the relationship between a boy and his maternal uncle. Through studying the patterns of relations between different social groups, Radcliffe-Brown was able to explain the meaning behind this custom.

Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski

Radcliffe-Brown is considered, together with Bronislaw Malinowski, as the father of modern social anthropology. He did not share the same vigor for fieldwork as Malinowski, but rather made his contribution through the development of a theoretical framework. Together, with Radcliffe-Brown as theoretician and Malinowski contributing the practical aspects, they established the methodological foundations of anthropological fieldwork.

Both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski are considered functionalists, but Radcliffe-Brown rejected such a comparison. He coined his own term, "structural-functionalism," to separate himself from Malinowski. While Malinowski saw the function of various institutional structures as serving individual needs, Radcliffe-Brown regarded them as supporting society as a whole:

The continuity of structure is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of the individual human beings and of the organized groups into which they are united. The social life of the community is here defined as the "functioning" of the social structure. The "function" of a crime, or a funeral ceremony, is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and therefore the contribution it makes to the maintenance of structural continuity. (On the Concept of Function in Social Science, 180)


Radcliffe-Brown was often criticized for failing to consider the effect of historical changes in the societies he studied, in particular changes brought about by colonialism. His analysis of society, that saw social institutions as functionally interdependent parts of the society working as a giant organism, is considered an oversimplification. Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, who was Radcliffe-Brown’s early follower and eventually replaced him at Oxford, later denounced structural-functionalism as a form of reductionism.


With his incorporation of the work of Émile Durkheim into his theories, Radcliffe-Brown brought French sociology to British anthropology, constructing a rigorous battery of concepts in which to frame ethnography. He made a break from traditional anthropology by emphasizing the functional study of the structures of the society, and the creation of general theoretical concepts that could be backed by the results of field research. In this way, he influenced new generations of researchers, who either supported or criticized his ideas.

Both Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas used some Radcliffe-Brown’s concepts in their own studies. His "structural-functionalism" found its utilization in the subfield of political anthropology, especially in the work of Max Gluckman, Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, and Edward E. Evans-Pritchard. His most prominent student during his years at the University of Chicago was Fred Eggan.

Radcliffe-Brown was one of the first “international” anthropologists, who was not bound to any particular academic institution. His work influenced scholars on almost every continent, and thus contributed to the reduction of ethnocentrism, bridging the gap between American and British anthropology on one side, and the anthropologies of other countries on the other.


  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1913. Three Tribes of Western Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 43, 143-194
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1964 (original 1922). The Andaman Islanders. Free Press. ISBN 0029255805
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1923. Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology. South African Journal of Science, 20
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1924. The Mother's Brother in South Africa. South African Journal of Science, 21, 542-55.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1931. The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Oceania, 1, 1-4.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1939. Taboo. Cambridge University Press.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1965 (original 1940). "On Social structure" in Structure and Function in Primitive Society. New York: The Free Press.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. & Daryll Forde. 2005 (original 1950). African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Trubner & Co. ISBN 1844530388
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 2002 (original 1952). Structure and Function in Primitive Society, Essays and Addresses. Free Press. ISBN 0029256208
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1967. Religion and society: Henry Myers lecture. Bobbs-Merrill.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1993. On the Concept of Function in Social Science. Irvington Publishers. ISBN 0829038159

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fortes, Meyer. 1963 (original 1949). Social structure: Studies presented to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. Russell & Russell.
  • Goody, Jack. 1986. Under the Lineages Shadow (Radcliffe-Brown Lectures in Social Anthropology Series). British Academy. ISBN 0856725293
  • Kuper, Adam. 2004 (original 1977). The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. Routledge. ISBN 0415330327

External Links

All links retrieved July 20, 2023.


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